Bishop Foley students, siblings, help kids learn how to cope with the loss of a loved one

Shelley Garrison Reece, right, a camp counselor for Camp Hope, a camp near Lapeer to help children cope with the loss of a loved one, plays catch with a water balloon with campers. Mitchell and Emily Mandziuk, student-athletes at Bishop Foley High School, help each year with the camp sponsored by Wellspring Lutheran Services. (Photo courtesy of Wellspring Lutheran Services' Facebook page) 

MADISON HEIGHTS — If your father owned a funeral home, you become acclimated to the environment.

“It’s not for everyone,” says Mitchell Mandziuk. “I’ve been around a funeral home all my life.”

“All” of Mitchell’s life adds up to the grand sum of 16 years. He’s a junior at Bishop Foley High School.

“Since I was 5 years old, I’ve followed my father and watched how he helps people in the rough part of their lives, how he helps people grieve,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s sister, Emily, 14 and a freshman at Bishop Foley, remembers “when some of my friends have lost their parents.”

So, it’s no wonder — although Mitchell admits he was “dragged along” in the beginning — they are enthusiastic about their involvement at Camp Hope and its mission of helping kids learn how to grieve.

It was about five or six years ago, they say, when their aunt, Jane Olivier, called her sister, their mother, Lila Mandziuk, about becoming volunteers at the camp.

Olivier manages Wellspring Lutheran Services in Frankenmuth, one of two dozen locations in Michigan providing wide-ranging services to seniors and families.

For the last 16 years, Wellspring has sponsored Camp Hope.

“These are children and teens, ages 6 to 17,” Olivier explains, “who have lost a mother, father, sibling, grandparent, a close friend through divorce, sickness, accident or tragedy. Here they can express their feelings of grief, learn coping skills and, most importantly, begin a healthy healing process.”

Volunteers Mitchell Mandziuk, left, and Emily Mandziuk help their aunt, Jane Olivier, Camp Hope director, prepare for opening the camp to help kids learn how to grieve the loss of a loved one. (Photo by Lila Mandziuk)

For three days and two nights in mid-August, 30 to 40 kids swim, make s'mores, go canoeing, walk the trails and admire the beauty of nature at a campsite near Lapeer.

The kids are broken up into three or four groups according to age. Counselors hold sessions and conduct activities dealing with different aspects of grief.

Olivier can’t say enough about the dozens and dozens of volunteers “behind the scenes” who round up the supplies for the campers and staff and put on a variety of fundraisers.

“That’s one of the best parts about Camp Hope,” Olivier says. “There’s no charge for the kids to attend.”

The Mandziuks’ role consists of amassing supplies such as paper, pencils, blankets, snacks, sunscreen — you name it — then assembling a crate for each camper upon arrival as well as having whatever counselors need ready-on-hand for their group sessions.

“We do the heavy lifting,” Lila says. It’s a hectic time in the days before the camp welcomes the children. “We put all this together, then we step away and pray for three days.”

For one of the grief activities, each camper is asked to provide a photo of his or her loved one. The photos are screened and ironed onto a pillowcase.

“This is most emotional,” Olivier says.

The camper, holding the pillow, tells who the person is and talks about their story, and walks around “introducing” the loved one to other campers.

Campers hold pillowcases with the image of a loved one at Camp Hope. (Courtesy of Jane Olivier)

Another activity is the “fishbowl of feelings,” Olivier says, which “makes their feelings visual.”

Each camper is asked to describe the color of the feeling he or she felt at the loss of their loved one. If they felt hurt, then they might squirt red dye into the bowl of clear water. If they felt sad, a blue dye. The water becomes murky.

Then, counselors ask the campers how they coped with their grief: kept a journal, rode their bike, played music or sports, etc.

For each answer, a splash of bleach is put into the murky water. The process continues until the water is clear. The lesson: kids develop a mechanism, a way, to cope with their feelings, their grief, in times of stress or grief.

“I enjoy doing this,” Mitchell says. “It feels good that I’m helping a child in grief.”

Emily concurs. “I feel a connection to it, a part of me.”

Both are cross country runners — (“I’m No. 1 or 2,” on the boys team, Mitchell says) — and members of the Foley chapter of Catholic Athletes for Christ. He also plays hockey and is on the Student Council.

Emily plays softball and belongs to the Key Club and the Math & Science Club.

Their father, Jeff (Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 1986 grad) manages the E. J. Mandziuk and Son funeral homes in Warren and Sterling Heights.

It’s no surprise that Mitchell, Emily and their oldest sibling, J. J., plan on majoring in mortuary science “to keep our hand in the business,” says Mitchell.

J.J. (Foley 2018), a sophomore at Wayne State, plans on becoming a physician’s assistant; Mitchell wants to direct his own funeral home someday; and Emily wants to become an orthopedic surgeon.

Color them gold.

Contact Don Horkey at [email protected].